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Learning Doesn’t Have to be Hard – September 26, 2005
At the café I visit each morning at the end of my routine walk, I overheard a conversation between two dads. Their expensive business attire, laptops and leather briefcases indicated that they were probably on their way to high-powered jobs. This morning, they were discussing their children’s school experiences. One child is, according to dad, not working hard enough to reach her potential. This child is apparently “coasting” and dad is upset because she didn’t get a high enough mark on the first test of the school year. The other dad’s problem was the same, but expressed in a slightly different manner. He blamed the school, rather than the child, stating that the curriculum isn’t challenging enough for his son, whose high marks must mean the bar should be raised back to where it used to be when he was a student.

It reminded me of what my mother told me over and over when I was a kid: “It’s not worthwhile unless you work for it!” This is the 21st century, and while there is satisfaction in some kinds of hard work, that old cliché is no longer true (if it ever was!). But it is perpetuated in our view of education, which says that learning is hard, challenging, unpleasant work. But watch a young child grow and develop and you will realize that when the time for it is right, learning comes effortlessly. On the other hand, when we’re not interested or engaged in – or ready for – a specific piece of information or skill, when we are presented with a bunch of out-of-context facts to memorize, then even paying attention (let alone learning!) becomes unpleasant and difficult.

As I pointed out in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, hand-in-hand with the notion that learning is hard, goes the idea that it must be measured…or that, in fact, it can be measured. In fact, not only do high test results not measure the amount of learning that has taken place, they can often signal a lack of real learning. What they likely mean is that a great deal of time has been spent force-feeding facts into brains so they can easily be regurgitated and perfecting the skills associated with successful test taking.

Unfortunately, governments and taxpayers alike value quantifiable achievement. Apparently, so do success-driven, achievement-oriented fathers. And the easiest way to quantify the achievement of schools, teachers and students is by measuring the retention of a narrow, but organizable, range of information. But this definition of academic success is a very sad boondoggle, in place to protect and perpetuate the industry of schooling, rather than to help children learn. And teachers are as much victims as children.

As Alfie Kohn says in his book What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? (Beacon Press, 2004), “If kids are going to be forced to learn facts without context, and skills without meaning, it’s certainly handy to have an ideology that values difficulty for its own sake.” And if our economy depends on the production and consumption of ever more cars, televisions and logo-plastered t-shirts, it’s handy to encourage the unquestioning mantra of hard work. After all, those well-meaning dads in the café just want their kids to come out the other end of the schooling sausage maker with jobs that will allow them to buy cars, televisions, leather briefcases and stylish business attire.
Posted: 2005/09/26 12:16 PM

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